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Millennials: the next greatest generation


Neil Howe has a theory about generations. The founder and president of LifeCourse Associates has been studying them for most of his adult life. Each era of about 80 years has four generations that repeat themselves cyclically, according to Howe.

Baby-boomers are an ‘Idealist’ generation, much as their great-grandparents, the Missionary Generation, were at the beginning of the last era. They rebelled against Victorian values at the dawn of the industrial revolution. They fought for protections for women and children working in harsh factory conditions and for women’s suffrage. Boomers, for their part, fought for the end of the military draft and for civil rights.

Idealist generations are followed by ‘Reactives’. Generation X mirrors the Silent Generation. They are, by nature, rebellious and cynical.

In Howe’s model, Millennials would follow the same script as The Greatest Generation (as Tom Brokaw dubbed them in his wonderful, eponymous book). They are a ‘Civic’ generation. They’ll clean up the mess we’ve made.

What mess? Open the newspaper (or light it up on your iPad) – dysfunctional government, frayed international relations, failing schools, etc.

How will they clean it up?

We can see nascent trends toward a future based on a set of values that both embraces prosperity and recognizes the impact businesses have on communities.

Self-styled Millennial Capitalists, the founders of Naadam Cashmere describe how they have reordered their supply chain to support the Mongolian herders who produce the raw materials for their successful clothing line. Bypassing the traditional middlemen allows them to share more of the profit with the herders and reap the benefits of a more reliable supply.

Conscious Capitalism was just a catch phrase a few years ago. Now, it is an international movement that attracts business leaders who share a concern that our prosperity should have a positive benefit to the community, not just to corporate shareholders. The movement’s credo outlines a belief that “business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity…”

The movement provides a framework for a “conscious business,” inclusive of all stakeholders including customers, employees, and members of the communities in which the companies operate. Conscious Capitalism reminds us, “we all need meaning and purpose in our lives.”

There is an emerging political culture in Silicon Valley that seems unlikely to adhere to the philosophy of either the hard left or hard right that rule our two major political parties. The New York Times has reported on a Stanford University survey of tech entrepreneurs who embrace both the libertarianism of the right and the liberal social values of the left.

How will this shift in values change our culture and methods of governance as Millennials age into positions of leadership in society? Well, no one can be sure. But, I have a prediction.

A generation of Americans that grew up with the Internet isn’t going to tolerate public institutions that operate on a 19th Century bureaucratic model. Nor will they tolerate a healthcare system that absorbs more and more of our national income without improving outcomes, a social safety net that will collapse of its own weight, or an education system that doesn’t match graduates with jobs and careers.

The last of Howe’s generations in the cycle are the Adaptives. They are born in a time of crisis (the 1930’s and 40’s, and now!). Today, they are running around soccer fields and learning the basics in elementary schools.

I wonder what kind of world they will inherit from their Millennial parents.

I hope I’m around to see it.

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